The Influence of Music and Film on Contemporary Fashion and Costume History

Contributed by Amy Ervin, Pickaway-Ross Joint Vocational School District, Chillicothe, OH


Fashion is an elusive and fickle subject. When studying the history of costume, it is often easy to find material about Greek and Roman cultures, Elizabethan dress, and the Gibson Girl. It is more difficult, and far less objective, to trace the trends of modern dress. When choosing costumes for a contemporary play, it is often hard to find accurate resources and explanations for modern dress. In order for students to achieve a thorough knowledge of contemporary styles and trends, it is necessary for them to examine closely the fields of music and film (and their corresponding histories) and determine their influence on the clothing worn by people today.

The songs and movies of modern times have had a major influence on fashion. Coincidentally, many of these important fashion-influencing films of recent times had one thing in common: John Travolta. From the white leisure suits of Saturday Night Fever, to the hats and boots of Urban Cowboy, to the fifties retrospective of Grease, to the modern gangster of Pulp Fiction, Travolta’s changing image has taken with it the pulse of the American people. Due to the overwhelming popularity of these films and the songs comprising their soundtracks (and perhaps not so coincidentally, the appearance of John Travolta), the clothing associated with them became an important part of American contemporary costume history.


Given the necessary materials and appropriate time frames, the student will be able to: 

  1. research a particular time period for popular music and film titles and determine why these titles are popular (e.g. is it a time of prosperity, war, civil unrest, etc.?);
  2. research the same time period for fashion styles and trends;
  3. determine significant music and film influences on the costume of a particular time period;
  4. compile a portfolio of song titles, lyrics, film synopses, photographs, drawings, newspaper clippings, etc. which accurately represents the costume history of a particular time period;
  5. make an oral presentation to the class based on information obtained and compiled in portfolio;
  6. identify current musical and film trends which are influencing fashions of today.


This project was developed with the needs of a junior/senior level performing arts class in mind, but could be adapted to meet the needs of any junior or senior high school class interested in contemporary fashion history (e.g. drama, social studies, home economics, etc.) and/or popular culture.

Time Frame

To be determined according to library and research material access, student in-class preparation time, etc., but the guidelines would be approximately one week of introductory material, two to three weeks of research, one week of preparation and compilation time, and three or so days of presentation (according to number of groups, class periods, etc.).


CD/tape player, TV/VCR, copies (or clips) of various John Travolta movies including Saturday Night FeverGreaseUrban Cowboy and Pulp Fiction, soundtracks (or song selections) from the aforementioned films, copies of selected lyrics, pictures and/or newspaper clippings and magazine photos/articles, various research materials, art supplies (paper, glue sticks, magic markers, etc.).


Actor John Travolta’s name became a household word during the 1970s with the popular TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Since the days of Vinnie Barbarino, Travolta has evolved into a pop icon of tremendous status through the popularity of movies such as Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction. Although he has been praised for his acting abilities, it seems that the most memorable scenes often involve his dance moves (and, consequently, the songs that go with the dances). No one over the age of 30 will ever forget the unique spins (and thrusts and dips and points) he put on that classic 1970s line dance, the Hustle. Many of our students today can be seen imitating his special version of the Twist performed to a classic Chuck Berry tune in Pulp Fiction—and incidentally many film critics have drawn attention to the fact that in his current film, Primary Colors, it’s amazing that he can actually take on the dancing persona of an overweight, white, Southern boy.

When Travolta first brought his style and charisma to the dance floor, it was with the assistance of the band that practically defined the disco era -- the Bee Gees. Responsible for many of Saturday Night Fever’s disco songs, they will probably always be associated with leisure suits, feathered hair, and disco mirror balls. However, as legitimate recording artists and 1997 RRHFM inductees, their records have sold more than 100 million copies around the world, and as songwriters, they have created dozens of hits for themselves and other acts. The hugely successful Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the biggest selling album of all time until the record was broken by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. With the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the Bee Gees became the only group, other than The Beatles, to have five songs in the Top Ten chart simultaneously.

It is interesting to note that the other films (GreaseUrban Cowboy, and Pulp Fiction) have soundtracks which are slightly more varied in style than that ofSaturday Night Fever. Although Grease was a 1950s flashback, the added theme song was more modern in sound than the songs from the original stage version. Urban Cowboy, featuring hits from Charlie Daniels, Anne Murray, and the Eagles, gave us several types of country-pop songs which saturated many radio playlists during the early 1980s. Pulp Fiction offers the widest variety of music, including classics from Chuck Berry and Dusty Springfield along with Urge Overkill’s version of “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.”



  1. Present video clips of the John Travolta films listed above. Be sure to choose clips which showcase the best-known song(s) associated with these films (see selected songs).


    Following the video clips, discuss the following topics with the class (some could also be used for writing assignments or quizzes). In some case, the students will be able to answer these questions in an open discussion format. In others, the teacher will have to use his/her research and recollection to lead the discussion. Add to or subtract from these topics as necessary.

  2. a. When was the film released (both year and season)? 
    b. Who were the film’s stars? 
    c. What styles of clothing were peculiar to the film? 
    d. What styles of makeup were peculiar to the to the film? (Remind them of a phenomenon from a couple of years ago...Uma Thurman’s wearing of Chanel’s “VAMP” nailcolor in Pulp Fictionmade the color so popular that it sold out almost immediately. As a result every cosmetic company under the sun created a similar black-red color to compete--like Revlon’s “VIXEN"--and Chanel created an entire “VAMP” line of colors.) 
    e. How did the music enhance or heighten what was happening in the film? Issues to consider include the musical style/genre, its mood, the lyrics and/or image of performer, as appropriate. 
    f. What styles of music/dance/clothing crossed over from the film into mainstream culture? 
    g. What was going on in society that either went along or contrasted with the images portrayed in the each of the films? 


  3. Explain to the students the nature of the assignment (see attached Contemporary Costume History Project Guideline sheet). Divide them into small groups depending upon the number of students and the number of time periods who want to cover). Assign or allow them to choose the time period to research.

  4. Suggested history periods (may be combined, condensed or expanded): 

    a. the mid to late 1950s, encompassing the early Elvis and the beginnings of rock and roll 
    b. the early 1960s, focusing on the “Teen Idols” and the movies associated with them 
    c. the psychedelic era, 1965 to 1969, including the festival films 
    d. the late 1960s to mid 1970s and Vietnam-influenced films and music 
    e. the mid to late 1970s, including disco, heavy metal and punk 
    f. the 1980s, “new wave,” Madonna (Desperately Seeking Susan), and movies like Purple Rain 
    g. the late 1980s into the early 1990s and the development of grunge and rap movies 


  5. Allow students ample time for research and compilation of materials. If possible, divide the groups and allow half to research in the library while others have a listening and viewing area for songs and
  6. Have students present their findings in oral presentations.


There are several means of evaluation for this project. 

  1. Students may be evaluated on a daily work basis (e.g. on-task behavior, daily accomplishments, work habits, etc.) and assigned a grade at the end of the project based on an average of daily grades.
  2. Portfolio—Based on the group’s written/compiled material, a grade should be assigned to each member. Suggested areas of evaluation include:

  3. a. written summary of time period and societal climate 
    b. photos, clippings, illustrations, etc. of costume 
    c. summary of songs, movies, etc. which influenced costume in what respects 
    d. selection(s) chosen for illustration to class 
    e. general presentation, including neatness, grammar, etc. 


  4. Group Presentation—Each group should give a 20-30 minute presentation to the class based on their assigned historical period. Included in each presentation should be at least one song and one film clip. Each member of the group should play a part in the presentation. Students may choose to present in any manner, for instance, they may want to dress in “costume” or do a dance of the period. Grades may be based on many areas, including creativity in presentation, appropriateness of material, visual aids, technical areas (e.g. volume, enunciation), etc.

Selected Films

Badham, John (dir). Saturday Night Fever. Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1977.

Bridges, James (dir). Urban Cowboy. Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1980.

Kleiser, Randal (dir). Grease. Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1978.

Tarantino, Quentin (dir). Pulp Fiction. Miramax Films, 1994.

Selected Recordings

Each song listed below corresponds to a section in the film which could be selected for use in showing examples of music/film influence on fashion to a class. Since I feel that the two most influential (and biggest breakthrough and comeback for John Travolta) are Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, I have more selection from these two. Saturday Night Fever was so successful at defining a particular era, however, that I believe it to be the best example in terms of fashion influence.

All songs can be obtained from the motion picture soundtracks to the films.

Saturday Night Fever (recently remastered, Polygram International, 1995)

“Stayin’ Alive” recorded by the Bee Gees (the opening sequence of the film features this song); words and music by Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb; Gibb Brothers Music.

“Night Fever” recorded by the Bee Gees (features the Hustle); words and music by Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb; Gibb Brothers Music.

“Disco Inferno” recorded by the Trammps; written by Green/Kersey; Six Strings Music.

“You Should Be Dancing” recorded by the Bee Gees; words and music by Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb; Gibb Brothers Music.

“More Than a Woman” recorded by the Bee Gees (features the infamous white leisure suit); words and music by Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb; Gibb Brothers Music.

Grease (PGD/Polygram Pop/Jazz, 1987) 
“Grease” recorded by Frankie Valli; words and music by Barry Gibb; Gibb Brothers Music Inc., 1978.

Urban Cowboy (Elektra Entertainment, 1980) 
“Lyin’ Eyes” recorded by the Eagles; written by Henley/Frey; Cass County Music & Red Cloud Music.

Pulp Fiction (MCA, 1994) 
“Son of a Preacher Man” recorded by Dusty Springfield; written by Hurley and Wilkins; Sony-ATV Songs. 
“You Never Can Tell” recorded by Chuck Berry (featured during the dance contest at Jackrabbit Slim’s); written by Chuck Berry; ARC Music Corp. 
“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” written by Neil Diamond and performed by Urge Overkill

Enrichment/Additional Resources

The website Internet Movie Database ( is particularly helpful when trying to find information about a film. Not only does it give you the basics like stars and director, but you can find a list of songs on the soundtrack, information on where to buy videos, and trivia questions about the film.

This assignment may be extended or altered by choosing to focus on specific films and their soundtracks and the resulting influence on pop culture and/or fashion. Some ideas include: 

  • Rock and roll concert films (Monterey PopStop Making Sense)
  • Elvis movies (Blue HawaiiJailhouse Rock)
  • 1950’s retro-theme films (American GrafittiGrease)
  • Feature-length cartoons (Beavis and ButtheadYellow Submarine)
  • Films starring rock stars (Purple RainDesperately Seeking Susan,Dune)
  • Films about the lives of rock stars (The RoseSid and Nancy)
  • Stage musicals as Hollywood movies or vice versa (Evita,Victor/VictoriaKiss of the Spiderwoman, not to mention all of the Rodgers and Hammersteins)
  • Films of a particular actor or director (Woody Allen, John Travolta, Keanu Reeves, James Dean, Bette Midler)

In addition, the assignment may be adapted to various subjects simply by changing the focus of research.

Contemporary Costume History

Project Guideline Sheet

Each group has been assigned a particular period in time to research for costume and fashion history. Since the movies and music have played such a big role in our recent costume history, these are the areas of focus for this project. Below you will find guidelines for the project portfolio and oral presentation.

Project Portfolio

What—a portfolio of written summaries, pictures, newspaper clippings, drawing and illustrations, etc. which reflects the costume and fashion history of your time period as influenced by music and film.

How—research, research, research. This may take several forms, however, and you must use at least 5 types of sources as listed: Internet, magazines, newspapers, books, personal interviews, movies, music (including album/CD covers, etc.) and other sources as approved. You must include a list of sources used in the project!

Who—every person in each group must contribute to the project! Daily work habits and progress will be noted and a grade will be assigned to each individual.

Why—we know that people watch movies and videos and listen to music. We want to find out how the different music and films of each era influenced the way people dressed.

When—you will be given 2 weeks of in-school class time to research your project, then 1 week to organize your materials, create your portfolio, and plan your oral presentation.

Some questions you need to answer and issues you must address: 

  1. What types of music and films were popular during the time period you are assigned? Was the popularity regional or nationwide?
  2. What types of clothing were worn? Did the older people dress differently from the younger people? What might contribute to the differences in clothing?
  3. What was happening in society during this time? Was it a time of prosperity, depression, civil unrest, etc.? What were some of the major news stories? How was the societal climate echoed or contradicted by popular entertainment?
  4. What similarities do you see between movies, music, the artists, and the trends in clothing? Was there a dance or event that might have increased the interest in a particular type of clothing? How were hairstyles and makeup affected?

Oral Presentation 
This is where your creativity and inventiveness come into play… 

  1. Each group must give a 20-30 minute presentation detailing the costume history of the assigned time period.
  2. In the presentation, every member of the group must actively contribute.
  3. You must coverall of the bases in your presentation, including a summary of societal climate and news headlines, popular music and film, costume and hairstyle/makeup.
  4. The organization of the presentation is up to you...You must include at least one film clip and one musical selection (must be pre-approved), and in addition you may also use dances, newscasts, recreations of important events, etc. However, you MUST have visual aids, be they drawings, posters, clippings, and/or the previously mentioned possibilities. Perhaps you want to come dressed in clothes from your time period--it’s up to you.

What about grades?

Each person will receive 3 grades for this project: 

  1. Daily work grade—includes work habits, contribution to project, attitude
  2. Portfolio grade—based on general project neatness, correct grammar and spelling, inclusion of all areas of information as given in guidelines, visual and presentation, sources of information, completed on time.
  3. Presentation grade—based on overall presentation, visual aids, information conveyed, appropriate choice of film clip and music, preparation and professionalism exhibited, completed on time